The movie Rounders was not a big critical or commercial hit upon its release in 1998, but it has since grown into something of a cult classic, beloved by its fans for a stellar cast of character actors and its immersion into the world of backroom poker games. A spate of fifteenth-anniversary appreciation essays on Rounders has been followed by what sounds, on paper, like an unofficial follow-up: Runner Runner is also about a young gambling whiz (Justin Timberlake instead of Matt Damon) sucked into a high-risk world of bad decisions and big money. It’s even written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the same screenwriters who brought such lingo-heavy panache to the earlier film.
Runner Runner adds in the current wrinkle of online gambling; Timberlake’s Richie Furst is a Princeton grad student desperate for tuition who works as an “affiliate” for a poker site, referring other students for a commission. This side hustle gets him busted by Princeton’s dean, which in turn causes him to sink his money into online poker games of his own — and lose spectacularly and, according to his game-theory calculations, improbably. Just as improbably, he tracks down Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), head of the gaming site, offshore in Costa Rica, and alerts him to the malfeasance. Ivan rejects him, then thanks him, then offers him a job.
Richie accepts the job and ditches Princeton without a moment of hesitation, because he is motivated entirely by money, which Ivan makes clear will be readily available. This wouldn’t be a problem for a twisty noir, but Runner Runner seems to believe that on some level, Richie is a fresh-faced go-getter (easy enough to believe when Timberlake is cast). But the character as written is actually a former banker who needs a finance degree from Princeton to get back the enormous wealth he once glimpsed. That’s his pre-gambling, pre-criminal aspiration: to become a rich asshole. All of this is supposed to be explained and excused because he doesn’t come from money. I guess the movie is being honest by allowing Richie to be fully and entirely focused on easy money and not a corrupted innocent with a gift, but it brings the likable character count of the movie down to an unenviable zero.
If the characters are all basically somewhere between ciphers and reprehensible human beings, though, some of the actors are more enjoyable. Affleck is particularly funny in smarmy late-nineties/early-aughts Boiler Room mode, alternating chewy outbursts of overacting with tossed-off preppy nonchalance. Anthony Mackie is also on hand, underused but a lot of fun, as a disagreeable FBI agent; Mackie clearly had a ball intimidating Timberlake, who remains an acceptable but lightweight screen presence better suited to character-actor parts.
For at least the first half or so, this all seems to be adding up to an airport novel of a movie. Director Brad Furman is no stranger to the airport, having made the above-average potboiler The Lincoln Lawyer, and his direction of Runner Runner, scene for scene, is mostly competent. But put together, the movie zips by at the speed of an outline, rarely pausing for actual pleasure in its seedy underworld. Timberlake recites the kind of voiceover narration that’s supposed to walk us through the scintillating details of an offshore gambling operation, but the text of his non-explanation amounts to: This operation has many scintillating details!
Those details that so enlivened Rounders are sorely missing here – either Koppelman and Levien weren’t as invested in this corner of the gambling universe or their sensibility was streamlined out of the final cut. As such, Richie’s final scheme to get out of harm’s way is laughably anticlimactic; instead of an elaborate plot where the functions of various side characters snap into place, he makes a couple of easy decisions with minimal assistance from Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), who isn’t enough of a femme fatale to truly come between Richie and Ivan. The movie itself feels like the bigger con: a fast-paced thriller that turns out, in retrospect, to have been kind of a drag.